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Marty Schottenheimer, one of the NFL’s winningest coaches, dies at 77

San Diego Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer in 2007.
San Diego Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer in 2007. (Denis Poroy/AP)

Marty Schottenheimer, one of the winningest coaches in the National Football League whose teams found regular-season success yet often struggled in the playoffs and failed to reach the Super Bowl, died Feb. 8 at a hospice center in Charlotte. He was 77.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, his family said in a statement.

As a coach, Mr. Schottenheimer developed a reputation for turning around losing teams by emphasizing strict discipline, defense and a conservative, error-free style of play. He led four different NFL franchises during his 21-year head coaching career, including one tumultuous season in Washington in 2001.

Hailing from western Pennsylvania, a region with a rich football tradition, Mr. Schottenheimer approached the sport with a steely, well-prepared resolve. His summer training camps were both grueling and meticulous.

Each practice session was planned to the minute, and players were punished if they were late. Mr. Schottenheimer would stop practice to correct a player’s footwork and then loudly praise his players when everything went right. On the field, he emphasized rugged defense and an offensive attack built around the running game — a style of play sometimes mockingly called “Martyball.”

Mr. Schottenheimer, who had a reserved manner, was seldom quotable or colorful in public. He had only two losing seasons as a coach, and his 200 regular season wins are the seventh most in NFL history. Every other eligible coach with as many victories has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 1984, Mr. Schottenheimer was in his fifth season as defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns when head coach Sam Rutigliano was fired midway through the season, with a 1-7 record. Mr. Schottenheimer guided the team to a 4-4 record in the remaining games and then led the Browns to four straight playoff appearances, including three AFC Central titles.

“We were tremendously prepared,” former Browns quarterback Gary Danielson told the Washington Times in 2001. “He’s a genius talking to his team and stating what the team needs to do to win the game. I listened to him giving 16 speeches a year, and none of them were ever the same. There’s not a lot of emotion before the game. But after the game, he’s very emotional. He’ll cry.”

After the 1986 and 1987 seasons, the Browns won in the divisional round of the playoffs only to lose both times to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game.

In the first loss, Denver quarterback John Elway engineered a 98-yard march down the field in Cleveland to tie the game at 20 late in the fourth quarter, in a remarkable comeback effort known to Denver fans as “The Drive.” The Broncos then won in overtime.

In the AFC championship game a year later, Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbled near the goal line in a play that came to symbolize both the Browns’ shattered hopes and Mr. Schottenheimer’s continuing postseason woes.

When the Browns had another playoff loss to the Houston Oilers after the 1988 regular season, team owner Art Modell told Mr. Schottenheimer to hire an offensive coordinator and give up calling the plays himself.

Mr. Schottenheimer refused and then left Cleveland for Kansas City, where he turned the struggling Chiefs into one of the NFL’s premier franchises. During his 10 years in Kansas City, he compiled a record of 101-58-1, including two seasons when the Chiefs finished 13-3.

He insisted his players approach the game with the same tenacity he had. When running back Barry Word set a team record in 1990 by rushing for 200 yards in a game (a record since broken), Mr. Schottenheimer told him at practice the next day, “It’s a short fall from the penthouse to the outhouse.”

“Basically what he was saying to me was: ‘Keep doing what you’ve been doing. Don’t rest on your laurels,’ ” Word told The Washington Post in 2001. “He’s got this 24-hour rule: ‘Win or lose, after 24 hours it’s over. You’ve got to move on.’ That to me defines Marty Schottenheimer. You’re not going to get a whole lot of pats on the back from him.”

The Chiefs were among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl in the 1990s, particularly after acquiring such star players as quarterback Joe Montana, running back Marcus Allen and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Yet they always fell short, and Mr. Schottenheimer was increasingly seen as a coach who could not win the big game.

After the Chiefs finished 7-9 in 1998, he resigned and became a football analyst for ESPN, where he sometimes criticized the meddlesome practices of businessman Daniel M. Snyder, who in 1999 became the principal owner of the Washington football team then called the Redskins.

Many observers were shocked when Mr. Schottenheimer accepted the head coaching job in Washington in 2001, signing a four-year, $10 million contract. He was the first permanent head coach hired by Snyder.

Mr. Schottenheimer hired his brother and 27-year-old son as assistant coaches and was initially given broad latitude to reshape the team, which was trying to climb back to the NFL’s top ranks a decade after winning the Super Bowl. Some veteran players rebelled against his rigorous practices, and he was never on the same page with starting quarterback Jeff George.

When Washington lost its first two games of the season by a combined score of 67-3, Mr. Schottenheimer gave George his unconditional release — an almost unheard-of move for a star player.

“I was of the mind-set that, as a teacher, I could teach and he could understand,” Mr. Schottenheimer told The Post at the time. “I didn’t do a good enough job teaching, and he didn’t understand it.”

After losing its first five games, Washington won eight of its last 11, and Mr. Schottenheimer was praised for reshaping a complacent, undisciplined team. At the end of the season, he balked at Snyder’s plans to take away his authority over trades and personnel decisions and was fired.

“I wish we could have worked it out,” Snyder said at the time. “But it became clear that the Redskins and Marty had irreconcilable differences.”

Walking away from Washington with a $7.5 million payout for the three years remaining on his contract, Mr. Schottenheimer immediately moved on to the San Diego Chargers, where he coached such high-profile players as linebacker Junior Seau, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. He began to delegate more authority to his assistants and was named the NFL’s coach of the year in 2004, when he led his team to a 12-4 record.

The weekend he received that honor, his team faced the New York Jets in the AFC wild-card game. Making the kind of hot-tempered mistake he warned his players against, Mr. Schottenheimer walked onto the field midway through the second quarter to complain to the officials and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Jets then drove for a touchdown and went on to win in overtime, 20-17.

In 2006, Mr. Schottenheimer led the Chargers to a 14-2 season, the best record in the NFL. But once again, his team failed to advance in the postseason, losing to the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff game. Shortly afterward, he was fired.

Dating to his time in Kansas City, Mr. Schottenheimer’s teams lost their last five playoff games — “one and done,” in football parlance. His career postseason record was 5-13.

“Schottenheimer is a master of building also-rans into playoff teams,” Boston Globe columnist Ron Borges wrote in 2005. “Unfortunately, he’s also the master of forgetting what got those teams that far. . . . For some unfathomable reason, he plays not to lose when the most is on the line rather than to win.”

Martin Edward Schottenheimer was born Sept. 23, 1943, in Canonsburg, Pa. His father was a food salesman, his mother a homemaker.

Mr. Schottenheimer was an all-state football player and helped lead his high school’s basketball team to a state championship. He was an all-American linebacker at the University of Pittsburgh, from which he graduated in 1965.

He spent four years as a backup linebacker for the Buffalo Bills and then two more years with the Boston Patriots (later renamed the New England Patriots). He got his first coaching experience in 1974 with the Portland Storm of the short-lived World Football League.

The next year, Mr. Schottenheimer joined the Jets’ coaching staff and then was the linebackers coach for the Detroit Lions before becoming the defensive coordinator of the Browns in 1980.

After his NFL career, Mr. Schottenheimer returned to the sidelines in 2011 with the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League. With the Virginia Beach-based Destroyers, he won the only championship of his coaching career. A year later, the UFL folded.

Mr. Schottenheimer lived outside Charlotte in retirement and was a licensed pilot. Survivors include his wife since 1965, the former Patricia Hoeltgen; two children, Kristen Schottenheimer and Brian Schottenheimer; two brothers; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Schottenheimer may never have made it to the Super Bowl, but three of his former assistants did win the NFL’s showcase event as head coaches — Bill Cowher with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tony Dungy with the Indianapolis Colts and Mike McCarthy with the Green Bay Packers.

“Listen,” Mr. Schottenheimer said in 2002, “if you’re not interested in winning a world’s championship, if that’s not your goal, you should be in another business.”

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